When a couch isn’t just a couch

Mul­ti­func­tional fur­ni­ture helps make the most of our smaller spa­ces

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY KATHER­INE ROTH

It’s not al­ways enough for a couch to be a couch.

Some­times, es­pe­cially when space is tight, it helps if the couch can dou­ble as two arm­chairs and a cof­fee ta­ble, and even stor­age shelves, as is the case with one Ja­panese camp­ing couch pop­u­lar among city dwellers.

The mul­ti­func­tional Camp Couch is made by the up­scale Ja­panese brand Snow Peak, which re­cently opened bou­tiques in Port­land, Ore­gon, and in the trendy SoHo sec­tion of New York. Although its $749.99 price tag may be steep com­pared to other camp­ing goods, some clients see it as in­ex­pen­sive com­pared to other sofa op­tions — and far more ver­sa­tile.

“The re­al­ity is that liv­ing spa­ces are get­ting smaller, peo­ple are mov­ing back to cities, and while peo­ple across the coun­try are more will­ing now to trade square footage for ge­og­ra­phy, they don’t want to sac­ri­fice their life­style,” ex­plains Lisa Blecker, mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor at New York-based Re­source Fur­ni­ture, one of the largest sup­pli­ers of “trans­form­ing fur­ni­ture” in North Amer­ica.

The an­swer for many peo­ple now is mul­ti­func­tional or fold­ing fur­ni­ture that makes small spa­ces both com­fort­able and ver­sa­tile.

“Sim­ple, dual-pur­pose fur­nish­ings are ab­so­lutely on trend now,” says Blecker.

Gad­gety, multi-pur­pose fur­ni­ture is noth­ing new, says Sarah Cof­fin, cu­ra­tor and head of prod­uct de­sign and dec­o­ra­tive arts at the Cooper He­witt Smith­so­nian De­sign Mu­seum in Man­hat­tan. It emerged in Europe and Asia a cen­tury or more ago, and has been pop­u­lar among Amer­i­can city dwellers since at least around the time that el­e­va­tors made large apart­ment build­ings pos­si­ble, she says.

“This kind of fur­ni­ture was very pop­u­lar in the 18th and 19th cen­turies,” Cof­fin says. “The idea that a chair can be pushed in or a side folded down to make more space has been around for a while.”

“Think of a tele­phone ta­ble where the chair fits into it, or a van­ity ta­ble that houses a pull­out stool.”

And there was camp­ing fur­ni­ture: In the 17th cen­tury, “peo­ple had to travel with their own fur­ni­ture and car­ried some­thing like a writ­ing box, which opened up with a leather sur­face for writ­ing and lit­tle draw­ers for pens and ink,” she says.

“And the Kore­ans and Chi­nese had ch­ests of draw­ers with car­ry­ing han­dles so they could be brought aboard ships,” she adds.

In a sim­i­lar sprit, niche fur­ni­ture like the mur­phy bed, mul­ti­func­tional ta­bles, and camp­ing fur­ni­ture that brings to mind colo­nial-era camp­ing fur­ni­ture but with a stream­lined, mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity, has now gone main­stream.

Chain stores across the coun­try cater to a grow­ing de­mand for fur­nish­ings that are both hip and ver­sa­tile. Out­doors stores like REI have also got­ten into the act. At REI’s store in SoHo, for ex­am­ple, sleek and ver­sa­tile couches, din­ing chairs and rock­ing chairs are sold along­side the ex­pected ar­ray of tents and other camp­ing gear.

“I’d say 70 per cent of the clients buy­ing this kind of fur­ni­ture are plan­ning to use it in­doors,” says Mike Martin, a man­ager at the store, lo­cated just a block from New York Univer­sity.

He notes the store’s dis­play of Ja­panese “out­door life­style” liv­ing and din­ing fur­ni­ture. ”It’s re­ally pop­u­lar among stu­dents look­ing to fur­nish their apart­ments,” he says of mul­ti­pur­pose fur­ni­ture. ”And the cool thing is you can also use it on a bal­cony, take it to an out­door con­cert, or even camp­ing.”

Blecker says her com­pany’s fur­ni­ture, much of it made in Europe, has gone from niche mar­ket to wide­spread in the past decade.

“Our prod­ucts are ex­pen­sive, but they’re much cheaper than the cost of mov­ing, or of ex­pand­ing a home. In­stead, they al­low you to make much more of the space there is,” she says. “Home sizes are shrink­ing as peo­ple opt for prime lo­ca­tion as op­posed to larger space, and even for those in houses, trans­form­ing fur­ni­ture­makes for more ver­sa­tile spa­ces.”

Be­cause of the high cost of larger trans­form­ing pieces (Re­source Fur­ni­ture’s fold­ing bed with in­te­grated sofa can range from $5,000 to $20,000), many house­holds tend to se­lect one or two im­por­tant high-end items, like a bed, couch or con­sole-to­din­ing ta­ble, and fill out the rest with less ex­pen­sive items.

“The No. 1 thing peo­ple don’t want to give up is a real bed. So they may be buy­ing a wall bed from us, and fill­ing out other things like desks at CB2 and end ta­bles from IKEA to put it all to­gether,” says Blecker.

Much of the trend to­ward at­trac­tive and ver­sa­tile small spa­ces be­gan in space-squeezed Ja­pan, mov­ing on to Europe and then here, she says.

Martin, at REI, con­curred, say­ing Ja­panese brands like Snow Peak seemed to lead the way on camp­ing fur­ni­ture that could just as eas­ily be used in­doors.

“It’s cool to have some­thing that works great in your apart­ment but that you could also ... just fold com­pletely out of the way so it doesn’t take up pre­cious space,” he says.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

The LGM Tavolo, de­signed and made in Italy by Clei, with bed in use (left) and wirh bed folded away. LGM Tavolo is a desk, queen size bed and shelv­ing unit all in one, of­fer­ing 35 lin­ear feet of shelv­ing and a 5-foot fold-down ta­ble. The shelv­ing ro­tates to ex­pose a queen size wall bed and side ta­bles.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

Two Flexlite chairs made by REI. They come in five dif­fer­ent col­ors and are typ­i­cal of a genre of com­pact fold­ing fur­ni­ture that can also be used in­doors.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

A fold­ing bam­boo ta­ble and red fold­ing chairs, made by the Ja­panese com­pany Snow Peak, and is of­ten pur­chased for use in­doors.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

Fold­ing fur­ni­ture, all made by the Ja­panese com­pany Snow Peak, which in­cludes white Take bam­boo chairs and the Camp­field Fu­ton couch which can also be trans­formed into a bed, two chairs and a side ta­ble, or even a stor­age shelf.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

A rock­ing chair, made by Heli­nox, is de­signed for camp­ing but looks nice enough that it can also be used as in­door fur­ni­ture.

KATHER­INE ROTH VIA AP

Camp­ing items from the Ja­panese com­pany Snow Peak. Many peo­ple buy them for in­door use.

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